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Despite COVID Surge And Advice From Health Experts, Most Kansas Students Won't Have To Wear Masks

 Kim Welch, a Wichita preschool teacher, leads a class during a half-day summer program at Cessna Elementary School.
Suzanne Perez
Kim Welch, a Wichita preschool teacher, leads a class during a half-day summer program at Cessna Elementary School.

Most school districts have either said masks won't be required when the fall semester begins, or haven't decided. That conflicts with some expert advice.

WICHITA, Kansas — Overwhelmingly, the guidance from doctors and health agencies to schools weighing whether to require masks goes like this:

Unvaccinated people — including elementary students, for whom the COVID-19 shot isn’t yet available — should continue wearing face coverings at school.

The message comes as the highly contagious delta variant continues to spread through Kansas and rage through next-door Missouri, fueling a new surge of hospitalizations. The vast majority of cases are among unvaccinated people.

So far, though, only one large Kansas district has signaled a return to universal masking. The Kansas City, Kansas, school board adopted a back-to-school plan requiring all students to wear face masks except those with health exemptions.

Other districts have either not decided on COVID protocols for the coming school year or have said masks will be recommended — not required.

Updated guidance

Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidelines giving vaccinated students the option to attend class without masks. But it said their unvaccinated classmates should continue to wear masks into the 2021-22 school year.

The American Academy of Pediatrics released updated guidance urging a return to in-person instruction along with mandatory masks for all students and staff over age 2.

Because . . . we want to have all students in school, the AAP advocates for all students, teachers and staff to wear masks while indoors in school,” Dr. Sonja O’Leary, who heads the group’s school health committee, said in a statement.

The group recommended masks for everybody, including older students and teachers, because schools lack the resources to monitor vaccine status or enforce mask policies based on vaccination status.

Kansas doctors and public health officials have weighed in as well.

In a letter to superintendents and school board members, the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment recommended that school boards “implement a policy that requires indoor mask wearing among persons who are not fully vaccinated.”

And just this week, a group of 100 Kansas City area doctors, including pediatricians and infectious disease specialists, sent an open letter to school districts urging them to require masks for unvaccinated students and teachers.

“We all agree that our students need to be in schools and that they need to be safe,” the letter said. “Enacting these policies will give schools the best opportunity to do both while minimizing potential instructional interruptions due to illness, contact isolations, and quarantine.”

Masks optional

Officials with the state’s largest district in Wichita announced last month that masks would be optional for all staff, students and visitors.

Sedgwick County spokesman Akeam Ashford said the county health department doesn’t plan to issue school-specific guidance on masks or other measures.

“The decision of county leaders has been to leave that decision up to the local school districts,” he said.

Susan Arensman, a spokeswoman for Wichita schools, said the plan is still to make masks optional. But “we are monitoring what is happening in the community,” she said in an email.

Wichita Superintendent Alicia Thompson got advice from public health officials and doctors and feedback from a community survey before crafting the district’s back-to-school plan.

In Johnson County, five of six districts have said they will recommend but not require masks. The sixth, Shawnee Mission, is expected to announce its back-to-school plan Monday.

Brent Lewis, president of United Teachers of Wichita, said he’s not concerned that the district’s back-to-school plan is at odds with recent health guidance.

“We understand that our school district faces difficult circumstances and decisions regarding safety during the pandemic,” Lewis said this week.

“We simply expect that as conditions and recommendations change, the school district will ensure that our students and staff are safe within our schools. And we want to stay in the classroom.”

Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.
Copyright 2021 KMUW | NPR for Wichita. To see more, visit KMUW | NPR for Wichita.

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Before coming to KMUW, she worked at The Wichita Eagle, where she covered schools and a variety of other topics.
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